Terryl Givens on Mormon History, Culture, and Fitness for Political Office in the United States

Terryl Givens discusses the paradoxes inherent in Mormon culture’s relationship to American society — following on the theme of his book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Cultureat the Oxford University Press blog today. An administrator of the OUPblog has pointed out in a comment here at ABEV that Professor Givens wrote the blog post. It seems like a fascinating introduction to the concepts addressed in the book but also addresses a current issue of debate surrounding whether being a Mormon should disqualify someone for political office in the United States.

Givens opens the post with a description of the siege of Nauvoo, which I believe many Latter-day Saints probably are not aware of, much less others who are not members of the Church:

On the 10th of September, 1846, the bombardment began and continued sporadically for three days. As many as 800 (some Mormons said 1800) U.S militiamen and area citizens with six pieces of canon had surrounded the virtually deserted city of Nauvoo, Illinois. The two to three hundred remaining Mormons converted some steamboat shafts to canon and threw up barricades in a feeble attempt to survive. After a stubborn resistance by the besieged, and a daring sortie that brought temporary respite but at a cost of three Mormon lives, the combatants signed an agreement of capitulation on September 16th. By October, the Mormon temple in Nauvoo—finished at such tremendous sacrifice even while persecutions raged—was desecrated, the beautiful city that had recently rivaled Chicago in size was a shell of its former self, and the last weary and infirm Mormons had joined their fellow believers in forcible exile. They left behind not just the “City of Joseph,” but the very borders of the United States of America.

I look forward to reading Givens’s book soon and learning from his perspective of the paradoxes of Mormon history and culture.

As for Givens’s current blog post, it makes the obvious point that the Evangelical creedalist contention that Mitt Romney’s (or any other LDS politician’s) religion disqualifies him (or her) or renders him (or her) unfit for the office of President of the United States (or any other political office in the United States) is ironic:

[I]t seems ironic that the candidate with the most explicit theological grounds for special loyalty to the American constitution and rule of law, is the only candidate whose theological attachments are singled out as possible disqualifiers for presidential office.

The irony stems from the paradoxes of LDS life in America, and Givens’s example of the siege of Nauvoo is apropos. Specifically, at the same time U.S. militiamen and (non-Mormon) area residents were surrounding and sieging Nauvoo to break the remaining few hundred Mormons who were still there (the rest had already fled the city that they had built — and which rivaled Chicago in size at that time in the 1840s — in the largest forced migration in U.S. history), Mormon pioneer men had left their families and wagon trains en route to a safe haven in the isolated high deserts west of the Rockies in order to join the U.S. army in its confrontation with Mexico in the Mexican-American War.

But such patriotism and devotion to America in the history of Mormonism does not overcome a failure to profess the “one substance” doctrine of Trinitarian Creeds in qualifying Mormon politicians for office in the eyes of some (many?) Evangelical creedalists.

6 Responses to Terryl Givens on Mormon History, Culture, and Fitness for Political Office in the United States

  1. lief says:

    Patriotism and devotion to America is something of a mixed bag in early Mormon history, but that’s probably OK since a real sense of national identity didn’t coalesce until the end of the 19th century. It’s clearer to illustrate the patriotism of American Mormons in the mid to late 20th century (i.e. we fight in wars, have had many high ranking politicians, and vote overwhelmingly republican).

    The problem is that evangelicals impose theological constraints, not patriotic ones. And the godhead vs. trinity disagreement is only the tip of the iceberg, if also a handy shorthand, for the differences between LDS and mainstream christianity. It seems that a modern prophet and the church’s hierarchical structure connecting the prophet to a potential LDS president is more likely the source of evangelicals objections, raising the ghosts of the Smoot confirmation hearings and JFK’s connections with the Vatican. Sorry for the ramble, but I don’t think its so easy to say that proof of historical LDS patriotism should trump the homoousios vs. homoiousios issue. And, I don’t see how the “rule of law” is a concept that the loudest anti-Romney evangelicals are too enamored with anyway.

  2. Hellmut says:

    Creeping religious tests for office are unfortunate. Of course, the fault lies with those American voters who are allowing political entrepreneurs to manipulate them by praying on street corners and using the name of the Lord in vain.

    It is even more unfortunate that Mitt Romney is participating in the propagation of religious tests when he insists that any candidate ought to have a belief in God, which happens to qualify him but excludes many other people.

    Human rights ought to apply to anybody and I would feel a lot better about Mitt Romney if his defense of religious freedom were not so narrowly limited by his self-interest.

  3. john f. says:

    lief, and yet the irony pointed out by Terryl Givens remains.

    Hellmut, I am not sure whether Mitt Romney is only interested in protecting his own religious freedom. At least I don’t have any evidence of that, unless you mean that he has said in his campaign that (he believes) Americans want a person of faith leading the country but not necessarily a person of a specific faith.

  4. lief says:


    OK, maybe it seems ironic, but its not. Special loyalty to the American constitution and rule of law is hardly the only qualification for president, and is doubtful to be the top qualifier in evangelical minds. If influential Christians are worried that Romney isn’t Christian enough, how is saying that his religion makes him patriotic an answer to their concerns?

  5. Clark says:

    Just to restate a point I’ve raised a lot, I don’t think the Trinity proper is an issue for Mormons. There’s only one statement in the Nicene Creed I can think of that could prove to be problematic theologically and even that one can be explained away somewhat. The biggest problems between Mormons and evangelicals is our rejection of creation ex nihilo and our extra scripture which goes against their idea of sola scripture. Even our theology of divinization, while abhorrant in the most common form, reduces to the creation ex nihilo issue. (i.e. there’s an unbridgable gulf between us and God) However even with divinization, while the Brigham Young view is perhaps the most dominant one in the Church there certainly are alternative interpretations more paltable to our Evangelical friends. And, so far as I can tell, the Church has no formal position on such things.

  6. Clark says:

    Regarding Romney proper, I’d just say I can understand why some might think a belief in God is an issue in deciding who represents them. But then I think Romney’s Mormonism ought be fair game somewhat as well. What bothers me isn’t whether the Mormon issue is raised but how it is raise. (i.e. appeals to 19th century events which seem largely beside the point – sort of like judging Huckabee in terms of slavery in the 19th century)

    The problem I see with raising the issue of God or religion is both narrower and broader than Helmut suggests. As I said I think in a narrow sense this is valid and understandable. We don’t vote for candidates purely based upon their ideology but also in their ability to represent us and vote. That includes many issues well beyond particular buzz topics of the day.

    The problem is that this has been reduced to group identity. The religious test on the Republican side is but one example. The “black identity” test on the left is an other. (With some actually saying Obama can’t be voted for because he’s rejected “black culture”) Both sides try to gain voters by appealing to a kind of team mentality that goes completely beyond their ability to represent me or their positions on any issue of the day.

    Now Romney has done that as well. I found his attempts to portray himself as a hunter far more troubling in this regard than his dealing with the religious issues.

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